Books / Firearms

Philip Cook and Kristin Goss’s The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know

One of the core texts in my Sociology of Guns seminar last fall was Philip Cook and Kristin Goss’s The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Cook and Goss Gun Debate

Cook and Goss are both public policy professors at Duke University who have published extensively on guns. Cook is a sort of “Dean” of social scientific gun studies. He writes generally from a negative outcomes and gun regulation perspective. Goss wrote the definitive study of why the gun control movement has failed so far.

The “What Everyone Needs to Know” subtitle means The Gun Debate is part of a book series published by Oxford University Press that covers a range of topics from ADHD to Venezuela. The substance of the books are presented in a question-and-answer format.

The authors’ biases can be seen at various points, as when they answer the question “What is an assault weapon?” without any critical commentary about the term itself (pp. 13-14) and when they equate stand-your-ground laws with a “shoot first” and explain later approach to deadly force (p. 131). But The Gun Debate has the considerable advantage of covering many essential issues in a single, easily accessible volume. For example, “What is a gun?” “What role do shooting sports play in American life?” “Who is at risk of being shot?” And so on.

Cook and Goss’s answers are far from uniformly anti-gun. To the question, “Is a gun an effective means of self-protection against an assailant?” the authors write, “The answer is a qualified yes” (p. 17). Based on my understanding of the data, this is an accurate response. Observing the norm that those who own guns often “have several (usually of different types) and in some cases dozens,” Cook and Goss remark, “There is nothing unusual about guns in this respect — the same thing could be said about cameras or computers” (pp. 6-7).

And there are little gems of insight throughout the book, like how lack of trust in government manifests itself in public opinion polling on guns. Cook and Goss note an experiment by Gallup in which they asked people whether they would vote for a law expanding background checks. 83% said yes. But when the question was changed to whether the U.S. Senate should pass such a law, the affirmative responses drop by 20% (p. 179).

Similarly, on the question of whether Americans believe that guns make us safer, Cook and Goss highlight an interesting finding from a telephone survey experiment in the mid-1990s. When asked whether “ordinary Americans” after “proper training” should be able to carry a gun, 65% of respondents said NO. When the question was changed to whether “average Americans, such as yourself” should be allowed to get a concealed-carry license “for self-protection,” 60% of respondents said YES (p. 29).

Even basic facts like the size of the gun industry in America are usually presented. “The combined $7.0 billion in shipments of guns and ammo [in 2012] makes this a relatively small industry, comparable in value to shipments of potato chips or ice cream” (p. 73).

How do criminals obtain their guns? “It is relatively unusual for an individual to buy a firearm directly from a dealer and use it in a crime” (p. 87).

Does the NRA represent the firearms industry? “The question is a matter of interpretation, but as a practical matter the answer may not matter much. . . . [I]t’s not clear that the views of the industry are really more extreme than the views of the NRA’s base (in fact, the opposite is probably true)” (pp. 200-1).

My biggest problem with the book was actually the way it referenced the scholarly literature. It was not always easy to trace particular empirical observations to specific publications. Some points are referenced using footnotes, but the notes themselves referred to a separate reference list, organized by chapter, which contained additional sources. Finding the original sources of the claims was an important part of what I was trying to teach in my course, but perhaps not essential for the average reader.

Although not perfect and not to be taken entirely at face value — what work is? — The Gun Debate was very useful for my class, taught me alot, and will definitely reward the careful and critical reader interested in the role of guns in society.


7 thoughts on “Philip Cook and Kristin Goss’s The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know

  1. Pingback: Philip Cook and Kristin Goss’s The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know | Rifleman III Journal

  2. David thanks for another good blog post. On the topic of scholarly literature in the study of guns and crime, the pro-gun-rights community needs to be prepared to answer a growing chorus of criticism aimed at the NRA for “stifling scientific research” into “gun violence.” Examples:,,

    As you likely know, the funding limitation arose from a couple of really bad studies done back in the 1990s. They were the source of the infamous sound bite that a gun is “43 times more likely” to be used to kill an occupant of a home than to kill an intruder. The studies were so over-the-top, based on such sketchy data, and drew such specious conclusions that they were justly panned in the peer reviews, however since the conclusions fit the narrative desired by the Clinton Administration, (not to mention by some medical associations) that they started a drumbeat. The NRA and Congress responded in typically hamfisted fashion by cutting funding. The issue lay dormant after the 1994 elections when the Democrats were shellacked, largely to do a gun control vote.

    In the wake of Sandy Hook and other such horrors, the CDC gun studies have been resurrected. It’s interesting that sociology and economics have developed a lively debate on this issue with voices all around, while the medical fields have embraced the “gun as pathogen” view. I suppose it’s understandable; the docs see the bodies. But they *only* see the bodies. They don’t also see the benefit side of the equation.

    Sorry to take so long with a tangential comment, but the academic side of the community needs to recognize that what is being billed as “science” doesn’t always qualify. E.g.


  3. Pingback: Looking Back on My Sociology of Guns Seminar | Gun Culture 2.0

  4. David I really wish there was some way I could audit your seminar. I could bring the perspective of a life long firearms owner to the discussion.


  5. Pingback: On Education, Persuasion, and the Limits of Empirical Evidence in Shaping Beliefs about Guns | Gun Culture 2.0

  6. We have just come out with a non-partisan book on Gun Control and will be happy to send a copy across to you for review or reading if you wish. I am not going to promote the book her by pasting link, but please do let me know if you are interested. The name of the book is “Savior: Without Guns”.


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